A Slow-Paced Legal Thriller

Photo by Jack GouldIt took eight months for Arthur Carmona to come to trial. It took eight days to convict him. Now, more than two years after his initial arrest, Carmona is still awaiting confirmation that he'll have a second day in court.

Carmona was arrested and convicted for the robbery of an Irvine juice bar, despite a complete lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime. Because there was no physical evidence, prosecutors relied entirely on eyewitnesses—but later, at least two of those eyewitnesses said they're no longer certain. At least two of the jurors who convicted him say they now have doubts about his guilt.

Now 18, Carmona faces another 10 years in prison for a crime it's unlikely he committed.

The attorney trying to get a judge to see that is Nadia Davis. The 28-year-old daughter of a Latino-rights activist, Davis has already scored small but crucial victories in the Carmona case. She successfully lobbied state officials to transfer the Costa Mesa High School student to Southern California prisons. More recently, she won a court decision requiring the Orange County district attorney's office to explain why evidence ignored by Carmona's previous defense attorney should not be considered now.

Davis figures she has been working on such social causes her entire life, beginning with family trips to distribute toys in Mexican orphanages. Her father, Wallace, was an orphaned fieldworker who didn't speak English during most of his early years but went on to become the county's first Latino attorney, a founder of the Hispanic Bar Association, and one of the first chairmen of the Orange County Democratic Party. Wallace died in 1995 while advising local Juaneo Indians in their quest for legal recognition. Davis has since adopted the cause.

Her rsum includes virtually every progressive cause in the county, including legal assistance for immigrant students, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and the Latino Caucus. When she's not working on the Carmona case, she serves on the Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Trustees.

She has also worked on the campaigns of Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), the latter bringing her face to face with the madness of ex-Congressman Bob Dornan. As part of Sanchez's team, Davis obtained proof of citizenship from voters who Dornan accused of voting illegally in his 1996 loss to Sanchez.

"The hard thing about that was interacting directly with the voters," says Davis. "Many of them had been here for 10 or 15 years and had only recently decided to become citizens. They were proud of it. Here they were crying and saying they didn't want to vote again. And I'm sitting here trying to convince them, 'Please don't let this man dissuade you from voting again.'"

In the Carmona case, Davis finds herself facing another test of faith in the Latino community: the belief that the justice system, like the election process, is not here for them. Some say it's the Latino version of the Rodney King case.

"What I want out of this case is fair representation for Arthur," says Reuben Martinez, an activist and Santa Ana bookstore owner. "He's getting that thanks to Nadia's determination."

"A lot of people think that I just saw the case and, with a bleeding heart, ran with it," says Davis, who was recently awarded the local Democratic Party's John F. Kennedy Award for Community Service.

In fact, Davis came to Carmona's aid through Los Amigos, a Latino civic organization. Arthur's mother, Ronnie, had come to the group pleading for help in her son's predicament.

"Being the only attorney in the room," says Davis, "everybody kind of turned around and stared at me."

Davis initially agreed only to help the Carmonas find an attorney. She ended up taking the case on herself at the urging of Allan H. Stokke—an attorney and longtime friend of her father—who has provided her with advice and moral support throughout the process.

"There are still people who look at me and ask, 'How do you know he's innocent?'" she says. "There's nothing on him. And when I met him . . . Well, by now I would have seen him lying to me.

"I've always felt I've had instincts about people when I first meet them, and I feel there's something inside that tells me Arthur is innocent. That's what I hold onto. When you read physical documents, that's a whole other thing, and there's nothing in that, either. That's what I needed to see. In a way, I was looking for something they held onto to arrest him, and I never found it."

Write to Arthur Carmona, CDC# P28238, Lancaster State Prison, 44750 60th St. W., Lancaster, CA 93536-7620. Support the Arthur Carmona Legal Defense Fund, 621 N. Linwood Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92701.

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